Ed Driscoll

To Not-So-Boldly Go Where GQ Has Gone Before

Reading the William Shatner profile in New York Times that the Professor linked to, I couldn’t help but think, hadn’t I read this before? At the start of the year, GQ profiled Shatner — the magazine had finally found the perfect man to match its own slightly campy tone, and the result was one of the most readable and just plain fun articles that otherwise moribund magazine had produced in ages. In contrast, the Times’ profile of Shatner just feels like a case of me-too-ism.

But then, this is the sort of magazine the Times has long been chasing, as Joseph Epstein wrote in 1994 in his lengthy, brilliant Commentary article titled, “The Degradation of the New York Times.” (It’s pay-to-read, but it’s a great read. Especially considering it was written before Howell Raines became executive editor, and began to really inflict his own unique style of damage on the Gray Lady in the crucial period during and immediately after 9/11):

Whatever its shortcomings, the old New York Times took itself seriously in a way that, in comparison with the new New York Times, now seems most salutary—even noble in aspiration. Where the new Times feels it quite natural to have a piece entitled “Behind the Scene With a Rock Impresario” dominate the front page of the Sunday “Arts & Leisure” section, in the old Times the same spot might have been given over to, say, a Renoir retrospective. Like all good middlebrow institutions, the old Times felt duty-bound to educate and elevate its readers. The new Times aims no higher than entertainment and catching its readers up on popular culture. Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr., the forty-two-year-old son of Punch Sulzberger and now the publisher of the Times, has gone on record as saying that people should read his newspaper “not only because it is the best newspaper in the world, but also for the fun of it.”

* * *

As his comment about “fun” suggests, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr. is a man intent on saving his family’s newspaper by softening it up still further. As he puts his mind to the task, the Times is in danger of becoming one of those newspapers that Joseph Conrad, in The Secret Agent, refers to as “written by fools to be read by imbeciles.” For all that the old Times may have been stuffy and dull in its high pretensions, the new Times is thin and frivolous in its celebration of all that is new and young and with-it. It was after Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. took over from his father that the new gaudy “Styles” section was inaugurated, and it is under him, too, that there has occurred the notable increase in so-called “life-style” and other soft stories.

“It seems to me,” wrote the English poet Philip Larkin, “that the apparatus for the creation and maintenance of celebrity is vastly in excess of the material fit to be celebrated.” Nowhere does this seem truer than at the contemporary New York Times.

As Ace wrote about Newsweek a while back, it thought it was in competition with magazines like Time and the Economist; instead it had lowered its standards so much that in reality, it was in competition with People magazine. And for what People covered, it certainly had more fun doing its job than Newsweek did.

Similarly, Rolling Stone and Conde Naste supermarket publications like GQ and Vanity Fair were essentially the level that Pinch wanted to transform the New York Times into. That’s quite a descent for any newspaper, let alone one that staked out such haughty turf as the Times of old. But between getting an American general fired and writing a better celebrity profile, it shouldn’t surprise him that lately, these pop culture magazines, however sclerotic they’ve also become over the years, do a better job handling their own self-designated turf than what’s left of the even more ancient Gray Lady.